Jacob deGrom is the best pitcher on the Mets. But that doesn’t mean he should be the club’s top priority to ink to a long-term extension. The Mets are in an awkward position with deGrom, as last year his agent very publicly asked for a long-term deal. And of course his agent last year is now the Mets’ General Manager. If Brodie Van Wagenen doesn’t lock up deGrom, he’s going to look bad. Plus, the fans want him signed, regardless.
The Mets have deGrom under control for two more seasons. Some have offered – presumably with a straight face – that the club not use its leverage in this situation. That’s beyond crazy. Imagine telling a player who’s eligible for free agency not to use his leverage. No one would dream of that. Because it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.
If the club wants to extend deGrom, if it believes there are goodwill considerations at play here, that’s fine. But it should be a back burner issue. To his credit, Van Wagenen has been focusing on other issues first, as he’s pulled off a major trade and made two high-dollar free agent acquisitions. But even after those moves, a deGrom extension does not rise to the level of urgency.
Besides, if extending a pitcher already under contract is a priority, the focus should be on a different hurler.
Zack Wheeler had a better year last season than even his biggest supporters would have dreamed possible. But with the way it unfolded – and Wheeler’s own uneven prior history – there are still plenty of people who consider him a question mark going into 2019 than a sure thing. Even other clubs didn’t believe in Wheeler enough at last year’s trade deadline to pay anything close to fair value for him. Right now, the Mets have an opportunity to lock up Wheeler to a long-term deal at a below-market rate. But it’s a short window and the Mets need to act while they still have the chance.
In the second half of last year, deGrom had a 1.73 ERA and a 0.833 WHIP – tremendous numbers that helped him win the CY Award. In that same span, Wheeler had a 1.68 ERA and a 0.813 WHIP and was 9-1. Pick any adjective you want – eye-popping, dominating, outstanding – to describe Wheeler because it fits what he delivered for the club.
We’ve seen stretches in the past where Wheeler has been very good, even if not at the level he achieved in 2018. But those were derailed by injuries. Not only was he healthy last year but we also saw a guy focused on attacking hitters with his stuff, rather than trying to execute a perfect pitch. Maybe it was the guidance of new coaches or maybe it was nothing more than experience and maturity coming to the forefront. Either way the results were terrific.
But still we come back to the injuries.
Wheeler missed two years recovering from TJ surgery and then had his 2017 season end early due to a stress reaction in his right arm. It’s important to distinguish between the two injuries. It was ligament damage that required the surgery that knocked him out for two years. The stress reaction was a bone issue. Wheeler ended up taking the prescription medicine Forteo, which was administered via shots in the stomach, for six months prior to last season.
There were no reports last year of ligament or bone issues for Wheeler. The primary concern was the workload, as he pitched nearly 100 innings more in 2018 than the previous season. So far this offseason, there’s been no word about any lingering soreness.
Just because there’s been no injury news in the offseason doesn’t mean that Wheeler is home free. And any talk about an extension comes with the assumption that he undergoes a vigorous physical/check-up. But a Wheeler who passes those tests would be the guy to extend. The uncertainty surrounding his health, along with the fact that Wheeler has not made a ton of money up until now, makes him an ideal candidate, one who would likely trade dollars for security.
Up until this point, Wheeler has made just over $4 million in his career, according to Baseball-Reference. MLBTR estimates that he’ll make $5.3 million in arbitration this year, his last season of team control before he hits free agency. Meanwhile, 34-year-old Charlie Morton, who missed time last year with a shoulder injury and who only once in his career has made 30 starts, just signed a two-year $30 million deal in free agency for his age 35-36 seasons.
Let’s say that Wheeler remains healthy in 2019 and puts up a season close to what he did last year. In 2018, he finished 11th in the NL with a 3.31 ERA. Let’s say he has a 3.50 ERA, with a WHIP close to last year’s 1.124 mark. How much would that guy, who would be entering his age 30 season, be worth if Morton gets $15 million per year? It’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t command at least a four-year deal, with a salary likely to be comfortably above $15 million per.
Of course, right now Wheeler doesn’t have that healthy 2019 season to back his healthy 2018 performance. And the Mets should use that to their potential long-term advantage. If you were Wheeler, with his injury history and having made the relatively low sum of money that he has to date in the majors, and the Mets offered you a four-year, $40 million deal, wouldn’t you take it?
FanGraphs estimates that Wheeler’s 2018 season was worth $33 million in free agent dollars.
The $40 million offer seems reasonable to me but may not seem reasonable at all to Wheeler. He may be content to go to free agency and earn himself a deal worth twice that much. But one thing that gets lost is that Wheeler has already once expressed his desire to management to remain with the Mets. While he never got the miles and miles of publicity out of it that Wilmer Flores did, Wheeler went to Sandy Alderson and made a personal appeal to the then-GM to remain in Queens.
Wheeler spoke to Newsday’s Marc Carig about the call to Alderson: “I know that doesn’t happen every day and I was nervous about doing it,” said Wheeler, still a Met. “But I figured it was the best way to get it across that I wanted to stay and be a part of this team’s winning future.”
The Mets can get a hometown discount with Wheeler that they won’t get with deGrom. Does it come with risk? Absolutely. But let’s not pretend that any long-term deal with a pitcher doesn’t come with risk. There’s higher risk with extending Wheeler than there is with extending deGrom. But that’s risk from a health standpoint. The financial risk would be considerably less with Wheeler. Can you imagine making a 4/$40 offer to deGrom? It would be a surprise if the deGrom extension proposal wasn’t at least twice that much. And the risk-reward equation, in my opinion, is significantly more favorable to the Mets if they extend Wheeler.